vinnyhaddad

Musings of a Curmudgeon on the Future of the Book

Category: Novels

On Ishmael Reed’s “Mumbo Jumbo” and Toni Morrison’s “Beloved”

         

Note: Reminder, these are more or less notes for a Qualifying Exam, therefore meant primarily to synthesize different texts/approaches rather than provide in-depth analysis. Provided time, I will most likely add a section on to this in the near future on Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist.

Postmodernism seemingly has as many strains within literature as it does outside of literature. One of the issues that literary critics have had in defining postmodernism as a distinct literary period is its distinguishing particular characters of highly experimental novels from the literary field as a whole: “Authors like Barth, Burroughs, and Gaddis were clearly producing recognizably postmodern texts in the 1950s, and postmodernism’s prominence in the1970s and 1980s was visible not only in syllabuses and academic journals but also, for instance, in the postmodern turn taken by a decidedly nonacademic author like Philip Roth. Even at its high point, however, postmodernism-—and in particular the form of postmodernism defined around self-conscious literary experimentalism—was not the only or even always the dominant player on the literary field” (Hoberek, 235-236).  Furthermore, as Andrew Hoberek points out, “While American fiction after 1945 had clearly departed from the modernist path (unlike painting, where abstract expressionism constituted an Americanized extension of the modernist revolution), neither did it offer a clear alternative to modernism” (234). This lack of ontological clarity is exemplified by the initial inclination of Irving Howe (the first to use the phrase postmodern in relation to literature) to see authors like Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud and J.D. Sallinger providing the evidence of a break between pre-1945 and post, writers that have not since been held up as postmodern barons. A problem with literary periodization, particularly unmanageably large ones like modernism/postmodernism, is the ways that, in their employment, literature comes to be too easily made synonymous with the social and historical contexts in which they are produced. The likelihood that modernist texts be reduced to sexological or psychoanalytic diagnoses is comparable to the likelihood that Cold War-era novels be reduced to expressions of paranoia or commentaries on historicity, as opposed to, for example, issues of economic inequality (postwar boom is taken on faith to have absolved literature from registering historical inadequacies in this area). Andrew Hoberek argues that it is a mistake, when talking about postmodernism and periodization, to “confuse aesthetic questions about literary form with sociological ones about the constituencies of such form” (233). This observation seems to align itself with the Formalist position on the evolution of literary style that experimental writing, or writing particularly ripe with “literariness,” generically moves to the center of the literary field, becoming less literary and requiring a new literature to come and defamiliarize its formal techniques. Literary fiction, then, pilfers its eclectic elements from “lesser” forms, like Dosteovsky had done with whodunit stories, and attains its value by de-familiarizing what readers have naturalized about those styles formally and their everyday manifestations culturally. It is also necessarily subject to lose this quality of literariness over time, it is not, as is popularly perceived, an element inherent to the text at all. Of course, this seemingly banal phrase “over time” has been noted as one of the wedges between Marxist and Formalist literary methods, the former adopting a methodology of symptomatic reading that takes into account the ideological and economic forces that come to bear on these shifts in aesthetic practices (see Terry Eagleton). However, understanding literature in this way depends on recognizing the autonomous nature of the literary field, as well as also seeing the ways in which sociological and historical forces come to be registered and narrated by the aesthetic practices of novels themselves. This is precisely what, sometimes unfortunately, encourages critics to focus on experimental poststructuralist novels as the primary evidence of what they see as symptomatic of “postmodernism” writ large, just as the stream-of-conciousness novels of Faulkner, Joyce and Woolf become analogs for Modernism. What seems worth noting is that, in a similar way to Formalism’s mutually buoyant relationship with Mayakovsky’s Futurism in the late 1910s, postmodern literature has been oft-viewed as a “critical fiction,” one sanctioned and initially taken up by critics like Leslie Fiedler and Ihab Hassan, then institutionalized by journals like Boundary 2 and major works by Linda Hutcheon, Frederic Jameson and Brian McHale (Hoberek, 235). As the highly experimental postmodern literature called into question the grand narratives of History and the ways in which we have naturalized stories themselves, African-American literature, it seemed, stood to both gain and lose tremendously in, what Linda Hutcheon termed, the complicitous critique of postmodernism. Its critique[1] is relatively clear: postmodern art noticeably de-naturalizes the “dominant features of our way of life” as in fact always merely cultural. In this context, postmodernism might be read as a skipped record of Formalism, taken up formally by art and institutionalized by poststructuralist theorists. This is not a dismissal of deconstruction, but an observation of a similar co-mingling and inter-penetration between a particular literary form and a theoretical garde in academia. Hutcheon goes on to argue that, for this reason, postmodern critique is also complicit: “Yet, it must be admitted from the start that this is a strange kind of critique, one bound up, too, with its own complicity with power and domination, one that acknowledges that it cannot escape implication in that which it nevertheless still wants to analyze and maybe even undermine” (4). This co-mingling and interpenetration between postmodern art and poststructuralists can also be read as a rival in the literary field to a synchronic rising market for African-American literature, as well as other fiction bound-up in identity politics. Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo (1972) and Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), viewed comparatively, illuminate the stakes of African-American literature’s risky tryst with postmodernism through the fine line between the denaturalization of history and story and the necessary reminder that not only is history real, but that history hurts.

Mumbo Jumbo, I think, clearly aligns with conventional expectations of the “postmodern” literary genre. It lacks substantial characters (particularly in relation to “character” being that most sought-after lost-thing that Franzen and others seek to restore following postmodernism), its nonlinear plot self-consciously calls attention to the ways in which stories can or ought to be narrated, it mixes media (including images that are often non-sequitur with the literary content). Having now read Mumbo Jumbo several weeks ago, and those that have undergone the QE experience can attest, it has blurred together in an amazingly speedy fashion. But, as Teju Cole so eloquently tweeted, “What you read quickly you forget. What you read slowly you remember. What eludes your reading becomes a part of you by other means.” I think Mumbo Jumbo, by design, falls into that latter category, becoming a part of you “by other means.” The (narratable) narrative centers on a revolutionary group of multicultural bandits who aim to retrieve all of the art of their ancestors pilfered and displayed in Western museums and return them to their rightful place. Concurrently, a mad dance epidemic (a psychic edpidemic) called Jes Grew is spreading across the United States and has the potential to reproduce and proliferate across borders, putting all of Western civilization in jeopardy. Ultimately, though, in what stands out as fairly representative of the “postmodern” novel, the book spirals into a conspiratorial recasting of history as a feud between the Mu’tafikah and the Templar Knights. In the jumbled unraveling of the conspiracy by Papa Labas at the very end of the novel, the concept of “mumbo jumbo” returns. A Guianese art critic dismissing Papa Labas’s entire account of History states, “In times of social turbulence men like you always abandon reason and fall back upon Mumbo Jumbo” (195). Mumbo Jumbo, as the novel makes clear at in the opening pages, is a “magician who makes the troubled spirits of ancestors go away.” In other words, in times of upheaval, those that History has made outcasts and exploited, seek out a form of magic to disavow History altogether. And yet, as the repeated Freudian analysis that occurs throughout the novel suggests, this disavowal of History is not magical at all, but depends upon an unearthing, a return and recognition of those social conditions and institutionalized powers that have put their misery in preparation. What is remarkable about Mumbo Jumbo is its masterful intertwining of critiques of history, politics and art. The autonomy of art, as represented by the museums that set aside the beautiful relics of Eastern, African and Native-American cultures alongside bourgeois 19th century European paints, fails to recognize the ways in which art is also bound up with all of our daily activities (as most of those ancient pieces are both aesthetic and functional). Postmodern art, as conceived by Mumbo Jumbo, is not merely reflexive of its playfully ironic and metafictional techniques, but is actively seeking a method in which history can be brought to the fore, speculated and analyzed, touched.

I read Toni Morrison’s Beloved more slowly, more delicately, and wish I could write more about it than I am about to. What I think is beneficial about looking at these texts comparatively is the formal disparity between the texts, and yet their similar interests in retaining a memory of history from the more playfully destructive postmodern novels. Beloved samples techniques of the 19th century sentimental novels and slave narratives in order to construct both a harrowing account of slavery (as a trace in memories) and de-naturalize the ways in which we have read these stories as accessible, knowable, narratable. Its hard not to point out the forceful paratexts of the book; the first page has a 18th-19th century-style frontispiece, except, instead of the traditionally “authorizing” portrait, Beloved’s frontispiece is a caricature of a black face with wings (transcendent?). Also, unlike the usual white male voice that authorizes many slave narratives (as true, as worthy, as significant) Morrison follows the frontispiece with (among other significant elements) a powerful foreword in which she authorizes her own work and discusses her formal experiment of de-limiting the story of a historical figure in order to make it her own.

The ways in which the narrative, then, demands that a reader “read-into” the text because of its constructed undecidability surrounding Beloved’s ghost constantly draws our attention back towards Morrison herself and her (playful!? of course this no longer the applicable term) deconstruction and subsequent reclamation of history. The magical realism of Beloved, as it is commonly called, is both, in this case, an act of empowerment and an act of mourning. In this way, Beloved resembles what Georg Lukacs argues as vital to revolutionary literature and inherent in a “good” historical novel: the aim to “reflect historical contradictions and not to conjure them away through an excess of revolutionary optimism” (Bennett, 30). Lukacs, of course, famously disregarded formal differences in his analysis of the novel in a somewhat monomaniacal quest for such literature. What is stylistic, in this case, remains significant, however. The utter destruction of (happy) alternatives for Sethe, the ways in which happiness is blocked entirely as a real, rather than magical or imaginary, is re-presented not through a mimetic experience of this blocked happiness, but an absorptive, emotionally charged unearthing of the thing-ness of Beloved’s ghost. The ways in which this is then narrated to us, made visible to us by these markers of the text as both historical and postmodern, is both uncomfortable and enjoyable, sad and engaging. Morrison does not subvert narrative through the same metafictional techniques that Reed employs in Mumbo Jumbo, but similarly problematizes the status of narrative as a clear, mimetic window into history and the Other. Beloved is both revolutionary and self-conscious of its status as such. It is both a critique of the ways in which history is mediated to us through traces, memories, and ghosts, and complicit in retaining the power of narrative to produce the shudder necessary for collectivity.


[1] That postmodern literature is a “critique” is not itself a given. As Linda Hutcheon points out, her discussion of politics and representation “[goes] against a dominant trend in contemporary criticism that asserts that the postmodern is disqualified from political involvement because of its narcissistic and ironic appropriation of existing images and stories and its seemingly limited accessibility” (3). While, in my experience, Hutcheon’s version of the politics of postmodernism has become a dominant itself (particularly her concept of historiographic metafiction and her discussion of Midnight’s Children as highly political), a particular stigmatization of “postmodern” novels as dismissive in the recent “affective turn” has been taken up by Rachel Greenwald Smith as also needing repair.

On Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening”

Kate Chopin’s The Awakening offers a critical locus for many of the texts I have thus discussed that deal with the question of loss and affect (Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism, Jonathan Flatley’s Affective Mapping, and Silvan Tomkins’s Shame and its Sisters).  But, it also figures critically into the question of what precisely the relationship between the novel, as a formal practice and commercial object, and loss precisely is for readers. As Terry Eagleton suggests, literature itself is a response to a problem, or, rather, a problem posed in response to a problem. So, let’s start with the prevailing question that the novel asks and see if we might not work backwards to find the problem to which it is a response.

What is ailing Edna Pontellier? There is an instinct to qualify or diagnose precisely what “the problem” is, presumably so it could be “solved.” While there is certainly sense that Edna “fails” to come to terms with her position, “fails” in her duty to her children, to her husband, to her station, and “fails” to come to terms with her narcissistic awakening, that she ought to have been more successful in any of these processes neglects the origins to which her melancholia is a symptom. Jonathan Flatley’s methodology in Affective Mapping incorporates, among other key questions, “What social structures, discourses, institutions, processes have been at work in taking something valuable away from me? How long has my misery been in preparation?” (2). The “valuable thing” taken away from Edna is unclear, it seems, to Edna herself. On the one hand, she is strongly affected by the accusation that she is a bad mother by Mr. Pontellier early in the novel, and Madame Rotignolle’s dying wish that Edna ought to “think of the children” (111) resurrects this shame-inducing indictment on her actions. This is never more apparent than in her final encounter with them: “It was with a wrench and a pang that Edna left her children. She carried away with her the sound of their voices and the touch of their cheeks All along the journey homeward their presence lingered with her like the memory of a delicious song. But by the time she had regained the city the song no longer echoed in her soul. She was again alone” (95). Furthermore, Edna responds in the affirmative when her conversations with the Doctor turn to the guilt she feels towards her children: “‘The trouble is,’ sighed the Doctor, grasping her meaning intuitively, ‘that youth is given up to illusions. It seems to be a provision of Nature; a decoy to secure mothers for the race. And Nature takes no account of moral consequences, of arbitrary conditions which we create, and which we feel obliged to maintain at any cost” (111).

We could, then, conclude that what Edna has lost is her freedom, or at least a perceived loss of freedom. But, what do we make of Edna’s own admission to Robert that it is his affection, or lack thereof, that was the source of all her anguish: “‘I love you,’ she whispered, ‘only you; no one but you. It was you who awoke me last summer out of a life-long, stupid dream. Oh! You have made me so unhappy with your indifference. Oh! I have suffered! Now you are here we shall love each other, my Robert. We shall be everything to each other. Nothing else in the world is of any consequence” (109). The confusion of what exactly is the source of her anguish, or her happiness, might be explained by Edna’s over-determination of her moods. As Flatley explains,

The world never presents itself to us as some kind of value-less set of facts or perceptions—things always appear to us as mattering or not mattering in some way. It is by way of mood that we attribute value to something. And since value for Heidegger, as for Tomkins, is a question of affective attachment, this is another way of saying that it is only possible to be affected when things have been set in advance by a certain mode of attunement. (21)

Crucially, Flately goes on to clarify, “even though it is only by way of moods that we know how we are in relation to the situation we are in, this however, does not mean that we are necessarily aware of our moods. In fact, we are often ignorant of the determinative effect our moods have on the world we see and how we relate to it” (21-22). This is quite illuminating when we apply it to Edna’s hyper-awareness of feelings, but blindness to their determinative effect or their origins: “An indescribable oppression, which seemed to generate in some unfamiliar part of consciousness, filled her whole being with a vague anguish. It was like a shadow, like a mist passing across her soul’s summers day. It was strange and unfamiliar; it was a mood” (6). When Edna allows this mood to color her perceptions of her husband, or contradistinctively a positive mood to over-emphasize her interest in Robert, she shows an awareness that her feelings/affective attachments to these objects matter, but not that they have been set in advance and may or may not contain all that she invests in them, positively and negatively.

Furthermore, as Flatley rightly points out, “one is never not-attuned; one is always in one mood or another” (21). However, this does not suggest that one cannot be improperly attuned, constantly exhibiting the wrong affects, incongruous with those around you. The power of attunement is put strongly in the event of the dinner party:

But as she sat there amid her guests, she felt the old ennui overtaking her; the hopelessness which so often assailed her, which came upon her like an obsession, like something extraneous, independent of volition. It was something which announced itself; a chill breath that seemed to issue from some vast cavern wherein discords wailed. There came over her the acute longing which always summoned into her spiritual vision the presence of the beloved one, overpowering her at once with a sense of the unattainable. The moments glided on, while a feeling of good fellowship passed around the circle like a mystic cord, holding and binding these people together with jest and laughter. (89)

Each of the guests are connected (bound together) by a “mystic cord.” However, Edna’s ennui is indicative that she is somehow not properly attuned, and guiltily aware of this failure on her part. This “improper attunement” comes to a head when she rages and storms out: “The voices of Edna’s disbanding guests jarred like a discordant note upon the quiet harmony of the night” (91).  There is something off about Edna.

It makes sense, then, that art becomes an intoxicating source of excitement for Edna. Two examples:

‘A book had gone the rounds of the pension. When it came to her turn to read it, she did so with profound astonishment. She felt moved to read the book in secret and solitude, though none of the others had done so—to hide it from view at the sound of approaching footsteps. It was openly criticized and freely discussed at table. Mrs. Pontellier gave over being astonished, and concluded that wonders would never cease” (9-10).

The very first chords which Mademoiselle Reisz struck upon the piano sent a keen tremor down Mrs. Pontellier’s spinal column. It was not the first time she had heard an artist on the piano. Perhaps it was the first time she was ready, perhaps the first time her being was tempered to take an impress of the abiding truth. She waited for the material pictures which she thought would gather and blaze before her imagination. She waited in vain. She saw no pictures of solitutde, of hope, of longing, of despair. But the very passions themselves were aroused within her soul, swaying it, lashing it, as the waves daily beat upon her splendid body. She trembled, she was choking, and the tears blinded her. (26)

Art is the quintessential “space” allotted for the full expression of feelings in public. Her outpouring of emotion during the piano recital or in the private reading of her book are socially validated, and, in fact, Robert looks forward to seeing how a new piece by Mademoiselle Reisz “affects her” when he returns from Mexico.  Edna relentlessly pursues a maximization of these positive affects (interest-excitement, joy-enjoyment) through her own painting and periodic visits with Mademoiselle Reisz. Edna’s “failure,” if we are to call it such, is her unwillingness to maintain the boundary between art and life, the “appropriate” aesthetic practice and the “inappropriate” one. Every object can be perceived aesthetically.

I contend that what appears to be Edna’s “awakening” is a correction to a series of misrecognitions. The qualities and optimisms that Edna invests in different object attachments (painting, Mr. Pontellier, Robert LeBrun, Mademoiselle Reisz, and Alcée Arobin) may or may not be present in the objects themselves. In fact, the objects at times appear to be interchangeable (as in the case of Robert and Arobin); Edna merely practices different methods to “come to terms” with the constriction of her freedom and individuation that motherhood and marriage have had on her. Her romantic love interests (which are not limited to Robert, or men for that matter, but unquestionably include queer attachments with Mademoiselle Reisz and Madame Ratignolle) appear to present a compensation for, rather than a fulfillment of, the unattainable fantasy of a “free woman.” Art offers the most quintessential example for this compensatory dialectic, offering a space to feel strongly so that one does not have to do it in “real life.” The compensatory nature of these object attachments, I believe, is what Edna properly recognizes in the end of the novel, and suicide, a consummate break from all of these attachments, is a “rational,” liberating solution to that problem, but it also appears to be a particularly ambivalent one. Can Edna Pontellier’s despondency be fixed (the narrator suggests the possibility on the final page “Perhaps Doctor Mandelet would have understood if she had seen him—but it was too late; the shore was far behind her, and her strength was gone”)? Our instinct to question whether or not Edna can be “fixed” is contingent on our assumption that the novel can make such a question of psychosis answerable. To recognize the feeling that The Awakening produces in us is to recognize that the book itself functions in much the same way that books and music function for Edna in the book. The ending facilitates a self-indictment of our feeling that art has value outside of itself; we ought to try and control our affective attachments more conscientiously, lest we lose site of what affects are socially foreclosed and which are allowable. Of course, our own attachment with Edna, our frustrations, irritations, our grief are simultaneously socially foreclosed and allowable, such is the power of the novel.

On Cynthia Ozick’s “The Shawl”

I think one of the major challenges of literary criticism is still developing a theory of how a text like Ozik’s The Shawl has such an affect on the reader. The announced lessons of postmodernism for on fiction (the systematic problematization of many of our assumptions about narrative and history) vanish, it seems, through the allure of feeling in fiction. Ozick’s The Shawl, as one reads it, is seemingly unproblematic in the way it offers up the story of a Holocaust survivor and her inability to assimilate into American society: it simply hurts. The Shawl hurts like few texts I have ever encountered. I open in this way because it seems to me that The Shawl offers itself up as a sort of argument for fiction, something it essentially shares with even the most playfully destructive postmodernists.

The reader is put in the position to attempt an empathic relationship with Rosa, to desperately understand her experience, and, potentially, to diagnose her mania. The narrative offers up a counterpoint to our reading with the much maligned James W. Tree, Ph.D. from the Department of Clinical Social Pathology at the University of Kansas-Iowa who is undergoing the same task. As Rosa sensitively deconstructs the language of his letter of request to interview and examine her for his research, Dr. Tree becomes a phallic symbol of the ultimate violation, psychic penetration. Implicit in the juxtaposition of Rosa’s deconstruction, contempt and deep terror, of Dr. Tree with the narrative is that fiction “cares,” that fiction when fiction touches and hurts us, it does so because it cares and without ever losing sight of our humanness. When Dr. Tree’s letter opens his inquiry on the wide range of “neurological residues” that his work at the Institute for Humanitarian Context has discovered in “survivors,” Rosa becomes irate: “Disease, disease! Humanitarian Context, what did it mean? An excitement over other people’s suffering. They let their mouths water up…Consider also the special word they used: survivor. Something new. It used to be refugee, but by now there was no such creature, no more refugees, only survivors. A name like a number-counted apart from the ordinary swarm. Blue digits on the arm, what difference? They don’t call you a woman anyhow. Survivor. Even when your bones get melted into the grains of the earth, still they’ll forget human being. Survivor and survivor and survivor; always and always. Who made up these words, parasites on the throat of suffering” (36-37). Rosa is also goaded when Dr. Tree refers to data accumulation as his own concern, “as a human being” (“Ha! For himself it was good enough, for himself he didn’t forget this word human being!”). The clinical language is too much to bear, and Rosa reclaims her subjectivity through a “routine” she has with all university letters: “she carried the scissors over to the toilet bowl and snipped the paper squares whirled like wedding rice…She threw the letter into the sink…she lit a match and enjoyed the thick fire. Burn, Dr. Tree, burn up with your repressed animation! The world is full of Trees! The world is full of fire! Everything, everything is on fire!…Big flakes of cinder lay in the sink: black foliage” (39). The way in which Rosa asserts her disgust for opens itself up to us with a vastness of interpretation (of her use of fire as a liberating destructive agent, of her self-exhibition that she wields “power to minimize affect inhibition” [Tomkins]) that have as an underlying current the irony that as a readers of fiction we are not vastly different from Dr. Tree. We exhibit the same “excitement over other’s people’s suffering” as we get fully absorbed and magically lost in the narrative of The Shawl. We commit the same phallic violation of psychically penetrating Rosa because we are mimetically enthralled by Ozick’s imaginative exercise; we uncritically ride the track laid out by the narrator, puzzling our way through Rosa’s delusional mania, voyeuristically pining for more pain to excite and engorge us.

Retrospectively, it seems The Shawl prefigures/ embodies the “affective turn” in literary studies. The persistence to her Rosa’s feelings of shame and being ashamed throughout invite the Tomkinsian interpretations of affect that were so powerfully brought to the fore by Eve Sedgwick. Tomkins describes shame in the following way:

If distress is the affect of suffering, shame is the affect of indignity, of defeat, of transgression, and of alienation. Though terror speaks to life and eath and distress makes of the world a vale of tears, yet shame strikes deepest into the heart of man. While terror and distress hurt, they are wounds inflicted from outside which penetrate the smooth surface of the ego; but shame is felt as an inner torment, a sickness of the soul. It does not matter whether the humiliated one has been shamed by derisive laughter or whether he mocks himself. In either event he feels himself naked, defeated, alienated, lacking in dignity or worth. (Shame and its Sisters, 133)

A prerequisite for the affect of shame is the activation of interest or enjoyment, to which shame acts as an inhibitor to one or the other or both. (134) Much of the shame is induced by sexual excitement and interest/contempt for the old man who pursues a romantic relationship with her: “When the drying cycle ended, Rosa noticed that the old man handled the clothes like an expert. She was ashamed from him to touch her underpants” (19). The shame connected to sex is uncovered in the letter she rights her long-deceased baby and her paternity: “Your father was not a German. I was forced by a German, it’s true, and more than once, but I was too sick to conceive” (43). The presence of a potentially new object attachment, Mr. Persky, seems to bring to the fore this sexual shame, but it is consistently mirrored by the constant threat of a psychic penetration by Dr. Tree, by the writer, by the reader, by fiction itself.

In this way, shame functions not just as an observation of an affect of Rosa’s, but as an affectively shared atmosphere that is experienced vicariously by the reader. Speaking from my personal experience of this narrative, the announcement of Rosa’s shame did not in and of itself produce a feeling of shame for me; instead, I was carefully enthralled and deeply saddened throughout the series of frustrations and irritations. However, in the moment in which Rosa attempts to produce for Mr. Persky her living daughter Magda only to produce the book Repressed Animation. Persky “can see [he’s] involved in a mistake” (61), and quickly retreats. Within just a few pages, Rosa receives the proper package with the shawl. Upon having a conversation with Stella on the phone, the phrase “long distance” conjures up the phantom of Magda in the shawl and her delusion moves about the room. When the delusion stops, the narrator remarks, “Magda did not even stay to claim her letter: there it flickered, unfinished like an ember, and all because of the ringing from the floor near the bed—Magda collapsed at any stir, fearful as a phantom. She behaved at these moments as if she was ashamed, and hid herself. Magda, my beloved, don’t be ashamed! Butterfly, I am not ashamed of your presence: only come to me, come to me again, if no longer now, then later, always come” (69). She vanishes as Mr. Persky re-enters: “Magda was not there. Shy, she ran from Persky. Magda was away” (70). There is, it seems, an imbalance or competition between object attachments for Rosa, and neither can be present when the other is.

However, I want to return to the offering of the phrase “long distance” as the prompt for Rosa’s delusional fantasy. The image of Magda and the phantom recalls the tragic scene from “The Shawl,” when Rosa is helplessly far from baby Magda as she waddles out into the middle of the concentration camp wailing for her mother, shawl-less:

Far off, very far, Magda leaned across her air-fed belly, reaching out with the rods of her arms. She was high up, elevated, riding someone’s shoulder. But the should that carried Magda was not coming toward Rosa and the shawl, it was drifting away, the speck of Magda was moving more and more into the smoky distance. Above the shoulder a helmet glinted. The light tapped he helmet and sparkled into the goblet. Below the helmet a black body like a domino and a pair of black boots hurled themselves in the direction of the electrified fence. The electric voices began to chatter wildly. ‘Maaamaa, maaamaaa,’ they all hummed together. How far Magda was from Rosa now, across the whole square, past a dozen barracks, all the way on the other side! She was no bigger than a moth. (9)

After Magda’s murder, Rosa cannot move:

the steel voices went mad in their growling, urging Rosa to run and run to the spot where Magda had fallen from her flight against the electrified fence; but of course Rosa did not obey them. She only stood, because if she ran they would shoot, and if she tried to pick up the sticks of Magda’s body they would shoot, and if she let the wolf’s screech ascending now through the ladder of her skeleton break out, they would shoot; so she took Magda’s shawl and filled her own mouth with it, stuffed it in and stuffed it in, until she was swallowing up the wolf’s screech and tasting the cinnamon and almond depth of Magda’s saliva; and Rosa drank Magda’s shawl until it dried. (10)

This unimaginable, incommunicable helplessness is relived so potently in this moment when Rosa attempts to avow her delusion to Mr. Persky that I vicariously felt deeply ashamed for her. It is noteworthy that the word “distance” is uttered here, not by Rosa herself, but by the narrator. The only other time the word distance exists in the entire text is when Stella complains of long distance charges. It is possible that the word linguistic utterance of “distance,” as a match with the narrator’s use of it in this pivotal early scene, as a trigger for her delusion suggests an unseen attunement between the narrator and Rosa. This attunement between narrator and Rosa is significantly matched by the attunement that the narrator produces with the reader, which only circuitously reasserts the power of fiction to produce such an object attachment in the first place.

Because interest and excitement are the prerequisites of shame, according to Tomkins, “shame enlarges the spectrum of objects outside of himself which can engage man and concern him. After having experienced shame through sudden empathy, the individual will never again be able to be entirely unconcerned with the other…If there is insufficient interest in the other, shame through empathy is improbable” (162). The novel (or, as this story is technically a novella, perhaps fiction is the operative word here) can only produce shame because it has first become an object of interest and excitement, and one product of this shame is the never returning to a state of indifference to that which has produced it. In this sense, we might consider that The Shawl, by successfully producing a shared affective atmosphere of shame, not merely between Rosa and the reader, but also between a myriad of geographically and temporally dispersed readers, successfully makes the case that the novel “cares” in a way that Dr. Tree cannot, achieves a humanity where the rest see only pieces and survivors.

This implicit argument for fiction ought not be seen uncritically, I think. The oddness of it does not go unseen by Ozick when an interviewer asks about her ability to write stories that convincingly are read as if “you were a Holocaust survivor yourself:”

I don’t agree with the sentiment “write what you know.” That recommends circumscription. I think one should write what one doesn’t know. The world is bigger and wider and more complex than our small subjective selves. One should prod, goad the imagination. That’s what it’s there for.

All the same, I’m against writing Holocaust fiction: that is, imagining those atrocities. Here we are, fifty years after the Holocaust, and the number of documents and survivor reminiscences — organized by very sensitive programs such as The Fortunoff oral history efforts at Yale and Steven Spielberg’s oral-history program — keep coming in torrents. Each year throws up more and more studies. It seems to me that if each one of us, each human being alive on the planet right now, were to spend the next five thousand years absorbing and assimilating the documents, it still wouldn’t be enough. I’m definitely on the side of sticking with the documents and am morally and emotionally opposed to the mythopoeticization of those events in any form or genre. And yet, for some reason, I keep writing Holocaust fiction. It is something that has happened to me; I can’t help it. If I had been there and not here I would be dead, which is something I can never forget. I think back on the four years I was in high school — I was extraordinarily happy, just coming into the exaltations of literature — and then I think about what was going on across the water, with very confused feelings.

When “The Shawl” was first published in The New Yorker (May 26, 1980), I received two letters, both quite penetrating in shocking ways. The first was from a psychiatrist who said he dealt with many Holocaust survivors. He said he was certain that I was such a survivor because only a survivor could write such a story. I was shocked by the utter confidence of his assumption; he knew nothing about imagination. The second was a very angry letter from a Holocaust survivor. She found my use of imagination utterly out of place and considered it both emotionally and morally disruptive. I sided with the survivor and thought the psychiatrist foolish. I finally assauged the survivor by convincing her that I was not an enemy of her unreplicatable experience.

As for the Jewish tradition of memory informing my outlook — absolutely, yes. History is the ground of our being, and together with imagination, that is what makes writing. Writing without history has been epidemic for some time now. It’s a very strange American amnesiac development to put all experience in the present tense, without memory, or history, or a past. What is “the past”? One damn thing after another. What is history? Judgment and interpretation. (“The Many Faces of Cynthia Ozick”).

Ozick offers in her response this fascinating tension between “sticking with the documents” because and the impulsion to write Holocaust fiction, to engage imaginatively with history and trauma. The playfully destructive irony and the historiographic metafictional techniques of much of the fiction that falls under the banner of postmodernism come to mind here as Ozick juxtaposes history with imagination. The deep feeling of The Shawl is, I contend, deeply ambivalent and unresolved. The belief in the value of fiction is a constructed one, but not any less real of one. As Tomkins suggests, “value hierarchies result from value conflicts wherein the same object is both loved and hated, both exciting and shaming, both distressing and enjoyable” (68). Such is our relationship to the value of fiction “after” postmodernism.

On Willa Cather’s “Death Comes for the Archbishop”

At times theory can feel overly burdensome and frustratingly vague (reading Deleuze and gnashing my teeth, I thought to myself, “None of the words you are putting next to one another seem to signify anything in the order you are putting them”). However, theory undeniably opens up new ways of seeing and alters perception. This was the case when reading Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927). I squashed my initial navel-gazing impulse (oh-yippee-a-bishop-that-converts-Navajos-to-Catholocism) when I began to notice what might be a richly and poetically expressed repressed homosexual relationship between two priests.[1] Willa Cather is popularly studied through the lens of queer theory (and I will do nothing to detour that trend in this blog), but the queerness in her texts are unique in their quiet resistance to interpretation. In Foundlings: Lesbian and Gay Historical Emotion before Stonewall, Christopher Nealon discredits the linear narrative of progress from the discourses of sexology and the invert to those discourses of ethnicity and the gay and lesbian liberation movement, instead bringing to the fore what he terms “foundling” texts that address the tension between the two, ultimately invoking a desire among queer characters to “feel historical.” Nealon distinguishes Cather from her contemporaries in the following way,

Cather’s refusal of the trappings of mass culture, and of the literary strategies modernist writers were developing in response to it, sets her apart from her literary and her lesbian contemporaries: she makes recourse neither to the strategies of irony so many of them embraced nor to the new explicitness about sex. Radclyffe Hall, although similarly sincere, is of course writing directly about lesbians in The Well of Loneliness (1928), and Djuna Barnes’s dithyrambic Nightwood (1936) reads light years away from the measured prose of [Cather’s novel] Lucy Gayheart, published the year before. Of course, one difference between Cather and Hall or Barnes is that Cather wrote about rural people of little means, while Hall and Barnes, whatever their innovations in sexual subject matter or literary style, were still firmly rooted in the tradition of writing about the rich, or at least the glamorously mobile. This difference reflects a class difference between Cather and the other literary lesbians of the period, such as Hall or Barnes or Edna St. Vincent Millay, all of whom were either born into privilege or privately educated. Cather, born on a farm and enrolled in a state college, seems in retrospect all the less likely to incorporate her lesbianism either mimetically, into her writing, as did Hall and Barnes, or publicly, into a bohemian life, as did Millay. Barnes, Hall, and Millay all embraced the age as the age of sex, either according Freud or according to the sexologists (in Hall’s case)—an embrace that would have appalled Cather, in whose novels sex is never narratively rendered. (Nealon, 63-64)

Briefly, I might add that, whereas in my recent reading of Henry James, an openness of interpretation can be invited through linguistic ambiguity, Cather’s careful clarity seems to face the tension of the repressed; in Sedgwick’s words, the “secret that always reveals itself” (Epistemology of the Closet) is not inherently political, so much as it is melancholic with precious few avenues to the anti-depressive. Interpretation is available to those able to see it, and utterly absent for those who cannot or will to not. This being said, Cather’s historical novel that offers an account of two French Jesuit missionaries sent to install morality where Spanish padres modeled moral depravity in the newly annexed American Southwest aligns well with Nealon’s positioning of Cather as seeking out a feeling for a queer history. The intense feeling of movement in the novel is complicated by the intense temporal and physical paralysis that the foreclosed queerness of the characters induces. Her affiliation with the moral certitude of Jesuit missionaries creates a tension between how this history buoys up and aligns with a Catholic spirituality (particularly through the medium of nature and the natural as I will show) and how it must also be endlessly deferred, how the denial of a queer past acts as a paralytic to the future.

The characters of Death Comes for the Archbishop (with their, and the audience’s, romanticized history of Navajo’s as a mimetic guide[2]) experience an affective attunement with nature and the environment. Let us take the following experience of Bishop Latour as an example:

Father Latour lived for three days in an almost perpetual sand-storm—cut off from even this remote little Indian camp by moving walls and tapestries of sand. He either sat in his house and listened to the wind, or walked abroad under those aged, wind-distorted trees, muffled in an Indian blanket, which he kept drawn up over his mouth and nose. Since his arrival he had undertaken to decide whether he would be justified in recalling Father Vaillant from Tuscon. (250).

The way in which the swirling dust and sand cloaks and covers Bishop Latour on the one hand allows for a secretive divulsion, and on the other an activation of the stormy feelings that have been covered for so long: “Father Latour needed his Vicar…When they were together, he was always curbing Father Valliant’s hopeful rashness—but left alone, he greatly missed that very quality. And he missed Father Vaillant’s companionship—why not admit it?” (251). This socially foreclosed desire is endlessly deferred for the reader, his admission of what this “missed companionship” is can never be verbalized textually, and therefore fulfilled physically. Bishop Latour and Father Vaillant exhaust all means of verbal signification but are deterred by the clear repression of what can and cannot be uttered:

‘I sent for you because I felt the need of your companionship. I used my authority as a Bishop to gratify my personal wish. That was selfish, if you will, but surely natural enough. We are countrymen, and are bound by early memories And that two friends, having come together, should part and go their separate ways—that is natural, too. [emphases mine]… If you take [the mule] Contento, I will ask you to take Angelica as well. They have a great affection for each other; why separate them indefinitely. One could not explain to them…’ Father Vaillant made no reply. He stood looking intently at the pages of his letter. The Bishop saw a drop of water splash down upon the violet script and spread. He turned quickly and went out through the arched doorway. (283-285)

Cather invokes Freud as only one possible avenue to understanding the psychic life of Bishop Latour. This socially foreclosed desire is expressed through a familiar description of melancholia: “But Jean, who was at ease in any society and always the flower of courtesy, could not form new ties. It had always been so. He was like that even as a boy; gracious to everyone, but known to a very few” (Emphasis mine, 283). Melancholia becomes depressive, or non-productive, when it casts a “shadow of the object” on the ego. If the relationship to the lost object is ambivalent (the relationship with Father Vaillant is at the same time held up in its bodied relationality and then disavowed), then it causes “this introjected emotional tie…[to introduce] a particular relationality into the ego, producing a ‘cleavage’…in which one part of the ego (the ‘critical agency’) ‘rages’ against the other” (“Mourning and Melancholia,” 47). Latour’s inability to form new ties can be traced to the loss of Father Vaillant and the socially foreclosed grief that accompanies any recognition of the importance of that cathexis. It lodges itself as a shadow in his Ego,

More and more life seemed to him an experience of the Ego, in no sense the Ego itself.  This conviction, he believed, was something apart from his religious life; it was an enlightenment that came to him as a man, a human creature.  And he noticed that he judged conduct differently now; his own and that of others. The mistakes of his life seemed unimportant; accidents that had occurred en route, like the shipwreck in Galveston harbour, or the runaway in which he was hurt when he was first on his way to New Mexico in search of his Bishopric. (325)

What Latour perceives as an increasingly hostile and prohibitive influence of the Ego suggests the melancholic cleavage. However, in a moment of ‘embrace,’ Nealon’s focus on a desire to ‘feel historical’ complicates a fixed diagnosis of Latour’s melancholia:

On the morning of his departure for home, when his carriage was ready, the cart covered with tarpaulins and the oxen yoked, Father Vaillant, who had been hurrying ever since the first streak of light, suddenly became deliberate. He went into the Bishop’s study and sat down, talking to him of unimportant matters, lingering as if there something still undone…He rose and began to pace the floor, addressing his friend without looking at him…He knelt, and having Father Vaillant, having blessed him, knelt and was blessed in turn. They embraced each other for the past—for the future. (293)

Again, these tense, ambivalent feelings are preserved in the material:

When he was otherwise motionless, the thumb of his right hand would sometimes gently touch a ring on his forefinger, an amethyst with an inscription cut upon it Auspice Maria, — Father Vaillant’s signet-ring; and then he was almost certainly thinking of Joseph; of their life together in this room… in Ohio beside the Great Lakes…as young men in Paris…as boys at Montferrand. There were many passages in their missionary life that he loved to recall; and how often and how fondly he recalled the beginning of it! (318)

Jonathan Flatley elucidates the profundity of the past, in all of its sensory outputs, forcefully erupting into the present, through material itself: “if sensory feeling (Empfindung)…is not experienced in the brain, but in the materiality of the place, then affect travels along the material paths of sensation to find a dwelling place. And here, it is as if beauty is too abstract and generalized; because it produces an overall effect that ‘dazzles’ one, it cannot provide a nestling place for the ‘fleeting darts of adoration…’ For Benjamin, experiences of affective attachment are interesting because they put us—precisely at those moments when we care most, when we feel the value of something—‘outside of ourselves.’” (Affective Mapping, 18). When the Archbishop is in a trance of these memories about Father Valliant, “when a voice out of the present sounded in his ear. It was Bernard” (305). This feeling is conjured beautifully and cathartically in the death of the Archbishop, when “there was no longer any perspective in his memories.” Then, only to be released and expressed in the final moment of the Archbishop’s death, the narrator ventriloquizes the immobilized and mute Latour’s dying fantasy:

 He continued to murmur, to move his hands a little, and Magdalena thought he was trying to ask for something, or to tell them something. But in reality the Bishop was not there at all; he was standing in a tip-tilted green field among his native mountains, and he was trying to give consolation to a young man who was being torn in two before his eyes by the desire to go and the necessity to stay. (335)

Near the conclusion of the novel, Father Latour summarizes his view of History: “For many years Father Latour used to wonder if there would ever be an end to the Indian wars while there was one Navajo or Apache left alive. Too many traders and manufacturers made a rich profit out of that warfare; a political machine and immense capital were employed to keep it going” (327). What is remarkable about this moment is the way in which the historical is actually at best a merely dramatic background for the affective turbulence of the Bishop’s personal relationship with Father Vaillant. The offering for the reader that the Navajo’s freedom is triggers the possibility for an anti-depressive melancholia is, to me, merely metaphorical. The repression of the “nature-conscious” Navajo’s by Americans mirrors, for Latour, an “affective map,” of the historical origins of his own melancholia, of his own foreclosed homosexual relationship with Father Vaillant.


[1] Again, I do this often with this blog, but as a disclaimer, I am in a whirlwind of reading from my upcoming Qualifying Exam and I would be very surprised if a minimal level of research does not uncover a wealth of scholarship on this relationship. If it does exist (and I would imagine it does), apologies for not due credit, you have all been in my shoes. If it does not, shame on you Willa Cather scholars.

[2] As a brief example, Bishop Latour admires “the Indians’” respect for the environment in contradistinction with “the white man” through a series of familiar associations, ending with the following, “The land and all that it bore they treated with consideration; not attempting to improve it, they never desecrated it” (263). The notion that Native Americans never attempted to improve their land by changing it (a romantic trope borne out of tradition popularized by James Fenimore Cooper) embodies a fantasy structure of white settlers as much as it would be for Cather’s American middle-class readers in 1927, or for contemporary readers for that matter.

On “Their Eyes Were Watching God”

Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God was an intensely fun, intensely harrowing book to encounter for the first time in my QE prep. The ways in which Hurston develops the consciousness of Janie through the form of the novel illustrates both the flexibility and adaptability of the form and Hurston’s creativity with the tools of narration at her disposal. In a number of exemplary early novels, the art of writing and the physical inscription of the words on the page were integral to the storytelling. The documentary or early realist novel, often labeled as “histories” or “life stories,” often exploited this act of physical inscription as part of its aesthetic practice. For example, Pamela’s ability to capture moments of her tenuous love affair with Mr. B is dramatized by her ability to write them down quickly in letters to her parents. Robinson Crusoe’s journal faces the danger of him running out of ink on the island. Tristram Shandy humorously satirizes this preoccupation with both realism and documentation by exploring the deep anxiety of recording one’s life (where to begin, what happens when I reach the point when its just me writing everyday, how do I ever catch up to the present, etc.). While the physical inscription of words on the page was not ubiquitous by any means, it represents for many, Walter Ong comes to mind here, an actual, epochal shift in what story-telling is and can be. Their Eyes are Watching God inverts this model. When Janie initiates the story of her life in a conversation with Phoeby in Chapter 2, Hurston utilizes an extended first person narratorial mode that is justified much in the way the writing of Crusoe and Pamela is “justified.” Following the evolution of Janie’s consciousness occurs with the backdrop of us “learning to read” the “Other’s” storytelling, the both “non-novelistic” and “hyper-novelistic” heteroglossia.As Janie’s consciousness moves from, in Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s terms, “being object to subject,” the narrator shifts between multiple modes. It is noteworthy that in this crucial foregrounding of Janie’s storytelling, she conflates her own story with her Grandma’s voice, beginning with the direct speech act of her grandma: “You know, honey, us colored folks is branches without roots and that makes things come round in queer ways” (16). The grandma goes on the recount a few memories from her time as a slave and the ways in which Janie’s situation still have attachments to that historical moment. Marianne Hirsch, in her writing on transgenerational trauma of the Holocaust, terms this foregrounding of a prior generation’s memory as postmemory:  “Postmemory describes the relationship of the second generation to powerful, often traumatic, experiences that preceded their births but that were nevertheless transmitted to them so deeply as to seem to constitute memories in their own right.” There is such a strong attachment to this memory of her grandmother that Janie cannot help but tell her own story without her grandmother’s story. Against this backdrop, Janie’s opportunities to vocalize her desires, to both “feel historical” and live in the moment, emerges in the tension through language, dialect and oration.

On the one hand, Hurston’s interest in anthropology is on display in this utilization of dialect. In her essay “Characteristics of Negro Expression,” she lays out a fascinating map of “negro expression,” including insightful arguments about the origin of metaphor and the adornment of language (verbal, physical, and cultural). In her section on dialect, she states, “If we are to believe the majority of writers of Negro dialect and the burnt-cork artists, Negro speech is a weird thing, full of ‘ams’ and ‘Ises.’ Fortunately we don’t have to believe them. We may go directly to the Negro and let him speak for himself.” Her use of dialect in Their Eyes Were Watching God can be seen as serving as a sort of corrective for misinterpretations of Negro dialect and as opening a narrative space to “let [the Negro] speak for himself.” On the other hand, the oral is clearly valuated by its contrast to the linguistic prowess of the “author.” Although, in a similar fashion to The Golden Bowl, the narrator does not offer much in the way of moral judgments on the character’s actions, or as a corrective force over their language, the contrast in the language itself creates a sometimes synergistic, sometimes antagonistic reading experience.  The lyrical beauty of the narrator is contrasted by the sometimes painfully limited ability for characters to express themselves. However, the two speakers, narrator and protagonist, are united in fascinating moments through free indirect discourse, like, for example, in the court case:

“They all leaned over to listen while she talked. First thing she had to remember was she was not at home. She was in the courthouse fightin something and it wasn’t death. It was worse than that. It was lying thoughts. She had to go way back to let them know how she and Tea Cake had been with one another so they could see she could never shoot Tea Cake out of malice. She tried to make them see how terrible it was that things were fixed so that Tea Cake couldn’t come back to himself until he had got rid of that mad dog that was in him and he coulnd’t get rid of the dog and live. He had to die to get rid of the dog. Be she hadn’t wanted to kill him. A man is up against a hard game when he must die to beat it. She made them see how she couldn’t ever want to be rid of him. She didn’t plead to anybody. She just sat there and told and when she was through she hushed” (187).

In this moment, when Janie ought and need to give an account of herself in order to save her life, in a space that requires an oration, the lack of direct speech is fascinating. This moment has an interesting symmetry to a moment in her marriage with Jody, when she is the town asks for a ‘few words of encouragement from Mrs. Mayor Starks,’ prompting Jody to stand up and say: “Thank yuh fuh yo’ compliments, but mah wife don’t know nothin’ ‘bout no speech-makin’ Ah never married her for nothin’ lak dat. She’s uh woman and her place is in de home” (43). In a later moment when Jody helps protect a mule from overwork, Janie steps “in front of Joe” and the following interaction takes place:

“Jody, dat wuz uh mighty fine thing fuh you tuh do. ‘Tain’t everybody would have thought of it, ‘cause it ain’t no everyday though. Freein’ dat mule makes uh mighty big man outa you. Something like George Washington and Lincoln. Abraham Lincoln, he had do whole United States tuh rule so he freed de Negroes. You got uh town so you freed uh mule. You have tuh have power tuh free things and dat makes you lak uh king uh something.’

‘Hambo said, ‘Yo’ wife is uh born orator, Starks. Us never knowed dat befo’. She just put de right words tuh our thoughts.’

Joe bit down hard on his cigar and beamed all around, but he never said a word.”

In this moment, Janie steps out of her position of silent object and offers a caustic appraisal of Joe’s self-aggrandizing action. Her words have power, as she “put de right words tuh our thoughts’ and facilitated the mule becoming a topic of conversation across the town for a week. This moment recalls Hurston’s discussion of “metaphor” as a way to put an image to language, which exists as an abstraction from reality earlier in that same essay “Characteristics of Negro Expression.” Interestingly, however, this moment also illustrates Janie’s ability to subtly manipulate multiple affective planes while speaking in coded language. Again, the reference to Lincoln is one that is a memory that is not her own, or the people to whom she is addressing. He is a myth who calls to the surface that postmemory that contains within it a different sort of trauma, a psychic trauma caused by existing in a world that is not one’s own because it is dominated by a previous generation’s experiences. Yet, it also operates as an emasculating weapon against Joe, who ventriloquizes the greatness of white leaders on an impotently small scale. And yet, it is ambiguous whether or not the other’s in the town have the interpretive capacity to understand exactly how this speech act functions as a metaphor, as a way of “making real” the abstractions of “white” language (an abstraction that Hurston poignantly uses “money” as the metaphor to explain). That the court case exhibits a return to this absenting of Janie’s direct speech acts suggests the possibility that her transformation from an object to a subject, as Henry Louis Gates Jr. suggests in his Afterword to the text, is not entirely straightforward. It is still mediated through the “expert” linguist in Bakhtinian terms: the “author.” Hurston creates an aesthetic through these shifting linguistic acts that suggest an ambivalence towards  Janie ever “achieving” freedom, whether that freedom is from men or from a memory.

On “The Golden Bowl”

           

The Golden Bowl wields tremendous narratorial prowess, a clinic of focalization and misdirection. The sentiment that Denis Donoghue opens his introduction to the Everyman Library’s edition I think appropriately captures the reading experience of this text: “We never feel, before the end and perhaps not even then, that James has given it to us without reserve and indicated how we are to receive it. We immerse ourselves happily in it, page after page, but we are never allowed to feel sure that we have it right.” The plot offers an overlaying of desires, knowledge gaps, misrecognitions, deceptions, and decorum damage-control, each of which is mitigated by a narrator that hovers, projects, tills but remains amazingly non-moralizing. For Jonathan Flatley, the ambiguity of James’s prose serves as a blankness that, in conjunction with our interpretive tendencies, we project our queer fantasies onto: is this character sexually attracted to her father? is this in the text, in between the lines, invented entirely by me? is James advocating for this or that?[1] The reader has little to go on in their quest to make little stacks of knowledge about characters, plot, theme or locate a logistical center of interpretation. In fact, characters almost entirely lack visual descriptions, and their value is based almost exclusively on the level of interiority.

I think this problem bears out interestingly on the basic level of communication. Considering the conventional use of direct speech acts in 19th century realist novels as representing the characters “linguistic view of the world,” one that can be compared and cross-checked with the authoritative moral compass of the narrator’s linguistic view of the world, the utterance about utterance, The Golden Bowl rather presents an intensely confused overlaying of discourses, where at least one role of the narrator is as a visual corrective for the lack of content or gaps in content of the direct speech acts of the characters. What is interesting here is that the narrator does not serve so much as an editor, transforming the direct speech acts of the characters to fit his own narrative, but committing a mirrored process of reading of the characters to one another, and ours to them. Direct speech acts on their own offer little, but the minor facial movements, intonations, changes in posture all must be read and interpreted, by one character of another character, by the narrator of several characters, and by the reader of some limited totality of language. According to Bakhtin, “language is something that is historically real, a process of heteroglot development, a process teeming with future and former languages, with prim but moribund aristocrat-languages, with parvenu-languages and with countless pretenders to the status of language which are all more or less successful, depending on their degree of social scope and on the ideological area in which they are employed.” The Golden Bowl presents several characters, and an author no less (which is a key figure in Bakhtin’s formulation), whose linguistic practices are informed spatially (the Prince is an Italian emigrant, the Ververs and Charlotte are American), socio-economically and aristocratically (the Ververs control the wealth, yet they require the social brilliance and connections of the Prince and even Charlotte. One might then expect that a hierarchical territorialization of these linguistic practices would fall along these categories, but power, particularly the linguistic power endemic to heteroglossia, is not constructed by these organizing principles alone. The formal aesthetic practice that Henry James utilizes in The Golden Bowl instead functions on a primarily epistemological axis, what characters know, how they know it, to whom and how they choose to reveal that knowledge, and ultimately how the reader figures along those lines.

In this vein, Mark McGurl, in his book The Novel Art: Elevations of American Fiction after Henry James, offers a compelling argument in which he draws connections between these modes of interpretation among and between characters and the social situation of the novel itself that James is responding to.[2] McGurl’s account of Henry James follows a Foucauldian/Bourdieu philosophical axis, following the novel’s competing discourses of power and cultural capital and the complex structuring of readers and non-readers that these discourses organize. As McGurl points out, “When The Golden Bowl was published, the idea of the novel’s potential as ‘high art’ was not exactly new, but neither could it be taken for granted, and this had everything to do with how the genre’s audience was conceived” (34).

“The ‘collective edition’ had been conceived as early as 1904, around the time of the completion of The Golden Bowl, and like this novel, though on a much larger scale, it would be intended by James as the creation of a sort of masterpiece. Revised to reflect his latest refinements of style, and supplied with the now-famous prefaces, the volumes in this edition would, James hoped, appear in the form of what he called ‘Handsome Books’—beautiful, high-quality objects. The New York Edition would be James’s artfully reconstructed version of his career as an artist, an ideality manifest materially as a set of handsome and durable things…Alas, by this point, the wide audience that James had begun to lose in the late 1880s could not be lured back to him with, and the laboriously prepared edition was a miserable commercial failure” (McGurl 36).

McGurl, I think, figures this discussion of the book as object into both the thematic and formal practices of The Golden Bowl quite persuasively. McGurl juxtaposes the frontispieces that James and the photographer A.L. Coburn develop for his texts while walking through London. The intrusion of pictures into books, into novels, the very things that so artfully “bristle with immediate images,” represented for James the intrusion of a “new homogenous ‘multitude,’ the ‘total swarm’ now able to ‘possess itself in one way or another of the book.’ James’s [conceived] of the novel, the dominant book genre in mass print culture, as a genre dominated, held hostage to a mass readership for whom ‘taste is but a confused immediate instinct’” (McGurl, 37). James’s frontispieces offer an interesting commentary on this lamentation by offering, not visual representations of characters, but of shut doors.

Frontispiece for 1909 edition of “The Golden Bowl”

McGurl argues that the partition between insider/outsider, of those allowed to enter and those that cannot, of those who understand and those who do not, of those who put the work in to understand a “real” novel and the rest of mass readership, is embodied by these frontispieces and carried out by the epistemological nature of his aesthetic practices. This is what, for McGurl, figures Henry James as the progenitor of the aesthetically difficult, perhaps misinterpreted as “prototypical,” modernist novel that James himself would not likely recognize (Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood for example).


[1] Flatley, Jonathan. Affective Mapping: Melancholia and the Politics of Modernism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2008. Print.

[2] McGurl, Mark. The Novel Art: Elevations of American Fiction after Henry James. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2001. Print.

On “The Corrections”

It has been a few years since I have read The Corrections, but, steeped in my research on David Foster Wallace, I have recently had the occasion to think of the novel again as I read a fellow blogger’s review. As it remains one of my favorite novels, I felt rejuvenated to write a little just on Franzen. In my research on Wallace, I had the occasion to read Stephen J. Burn’s Jonathan Franzen at the End of Postmodernism and Jeremy Green’s Late Postmodernism: American Fiction at the Millenium (the latter needs more of my attention so I will avoid too close of commentary on it here),[1] both reminding me that I ought not let Franzen move too far on the periphery of my thinking about contemporary fiction and cruel optimism.

Stephen Burn’s account of Franzen offers a very wide scope “of literary, rather than cultural criticism” (xiii), meaning that it traces out the interconnections and conversations that Franzen’s fiction (as well as Wallace’s and Richard Power’s) is having with their post-modern predecessors. On the one hand, the type of approach Burn’s employs with his objects of study (biographical, literary historical & contextual analysis) is not one that I generally employ. For example, while reading The Corrections I remember simply experiencing an intoxicating attunement with all of the minor negative affects (irritation and paranoia) that the characters Gary, Chip, and Denise felt towards one another, their parents, and their Midwestern past whose borders seemed to be melting with their Eastern adult lives. When I return to The Corrections for future work I intend to explore the text with Sianne Ngai’s Ugly Feelings to think of how these feelings function “as allegories for an autonomous or bourgeois art’s increasingly resigned and pessimistic understanding of its own relationship to political action” (Ugly Feelings, 3). I wanted to state this apostrophe for two reasons: 1.) Ngai efficiently argues in her introduction how this analysis of ugly feelings (so pervasive in The Corrections) allows literary and cultural studies to “think of the aesthetic and the political together—a task whose urgency seems to increase in proportion to its difficulty in a increasingly anti-utopian and functionally differentiated society” (3) and 2.) Franzen seems as much in conversation with the relevance of fiction (as his inner and public battle with literary versus popular fiction suggests) as with its relationship to postmodernism and intertextual dialogues, so taking that relevance seriously seems to occlude an analysis that removes the literary from the cultural. However, Stephen Burn does offer several key insights that I think are worth noting here that can easily be overlooked when you begin to too excitedly develop an unbalanced study of affect, as I am sometimes wont to do.

First, Burn successfully illustrates through intertextual dialogues that understanding Franzen’s work (particularly his latter work in The Corrections and, while this predates its publication it, I imagine, even more firmly falls under this mistaken rubric, Freedom) is seen as nostalgic a return to nineteenth-century realism. I think Burn is exactly right, particularly by highlighting Franzen’s usage of complex temporal shifts and flirtations with technomodernism(“the all-important engagement of postmodern literature with information technology” [The Program Era, 32]).

More interestingly, however, Burn rightly makes the case that Franzen’s “reputation has developed somewhat unevenly” (ix). For several reasons, among them Franzen’s proclivity to seemingly resolve difficult tensions in his nonfiction that his fiction only amplifies his ambivalence of as well as the varied (mostly negative) responses towards the Oprah Winfrey Book Club, have served mainly as a distraction from the ways in which his fiction “is a development from, rather than an explicity rejection of, [postmodernism], and so—just as modernist works have affinities with postmodernist works—post-postmodernist [like Franzen’s] novels betray a family resemblance to the previous generation’s work” (19). Burn states,

In virtually every critical interpretation of The Corrections the argument in ‘Perchance to Dream’ is treated as a kind of preface to the novel itself…The underlying belief that animates each of these interpretations—regardless of the conclusions that the individual critic extracts—is that ‘Perchance to Dream’ represents a successful resolution to the creative problems Franzen suffered in the early 1990s. Because Franzen’s nonfiction nearly always resolves dichotomies, there is certainly evidence in the essay itself to support this belief. The essay moves toward its conclusion with a simulated epiphany, a note of breakthrough: ‘As soon as I jettisoned my perceived obligation to the chimerical mainstream, my third book begain to move again. I’m amazed now that I’d trusted myself so little for so long.’ However…the reductive sketch of a solution to the contemporary novel’s ills in ‘Perchance to Dream’ actually bears only a marginal relation to the novel Franzen actually wrote, and that the aesthetic foundations of The Corrections are more complex than the essay intimates. (50-51).

In other words, what Burn is right to point out that Franzen’s nonfiction (and I will add that a similar phenomenon occurs with David Foster Wallace’s nonfiction) oxidizes the medium-specific literary analysis of his fiction. I will qualify here that Franzen’s nonfiction and the other extratextual  events (interviews, Oprah scandal, etc.) have structured the complex author figure that, in my view, primes a particular mood that reader’s have when they approach his work. Burn is not trying to separate the two, he seeks a way to complicate the relationship of Franzen’s fiction and postmodernism in order to “fill-out the two-dimenisonal cartoon figure of Franzen who sometimes functions in accounts of the Oprah affair” (x). However, the complicated picture we take away of Franzen from Burn’s text still should be used to illuminate the “cartoon figure” whose prevalence Burn’s recognizes all to well. In other words, we need to police the ways in which we understand how these forces intermingle and interact when we examine the “politics of aesthetics” in these cases because the ecology of literary fiction depends on the cultural capital of the text (the shared situated and trained moods that congeal around texts before we crack the cover) as well as the text itself.[2]


[1]  Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s The Anxiety of Obsolescence offers an analysis on Franzen and what we associate with him as anxiety over the death of the novel I find to be the very persuasive on this topic.

[2] In Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, D.T. Max includes a footnote that no good discussion of Franzen should be without. Feeling anxious and jealous about his peers’ success, “Wallace told the New York Times Magazine  that Franzen exercised in black socks, but then felt ashamed, as he wrote DeLillo. (The comment was not used in the article.)” (323).

On “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” and “The Program Era”

        

Raymond Carver’s famous short story collection “What We Talk about When We Talk About Love,” one that is credited with “putting him on the map,” so to speak, lies at the intersection of a number of literary issues that I find fascinating: book history, affect theory and periodization. To the first, D.T. Max’s 1998 article in The New York Times Magazine entitled “The Carver Chronicles” unveils the extent to which editor Gordon Lish contributed to Carver’s success (and his name being synonymous with “minimalism” itself); “Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fix-It” was cut by seventy-percent, while the infamous  “Tell the Women We’re Going” (and my personal favorite) was altered so dramatically that it didn’t appear to be the same story:

Written by Carver in the late 1960’s or early 70’s, the story was unusual for him, one of the few in which the violence implicit in his characters becomes explicit. The story first made an appearance as ”Friendship” in Sou’wester, a small literary magazine. By the time it appeared in the ”What We Talk About” collection, Lish had retitled it — and cut it by 40 percent. The story is set near the town in which Carver grew up, Yakima, Wash. Bill and his tougher friend Jerry take a break from their wives at a barbecue and drive off looking for action. They find two teen-age girls bicycling along the road and try to get their attention. Things go awry. After a tense pursuit full of strange pleas and laughs, Jerry rapes and kills Sharon — a scene that Bill, who has dropped behind, arrives in time to witness. He cries out, asserting in that moment the horror that the reader feels, too.

What’s noteworthy about the story is the way Carver makes a boring afternoon build to murder. Lish didn’t care about this. He was after more abstract effects. He made cuts on every page. Bill becomes just a passive companion to Jerry. The pursuit is eliminated: the violence now comes out of nowhere and is almost hallucinogenic. ”[Bill] never knew what Jerry wanted. But it started and ended with a rock,” Lish wrote in. ”Jerry used the same rock on both girls, first on the girl called Sharon and then on the one that was supposed to be Bill’s.” The story ends right there. One wonders how Carver must have felt when he saw that.

Then, predictably, tension began to bubble between Lish and Carver (Lish feeling undervalued and Carver feeling that his credibility might be shattered if the truth was found out).

”Please, Gordon, for God’s sake help me in this and try to understand. . . . I’ve got to pull out of this one. Please hear me. I’ve been up all night thinking on this. . . . I’ll say it again, if I have any standing or reputation or credibility [sic] in the world, I owe it to you. I owe you this more-or-less pretty interesting life I have [but] I can’t take the risk as to what might happen to me.” In the same letter, he wrote imploringly, ”[M]y very sanity is on the line here. . . . I feel it, that if the book were to be published as it is in its present edited form, I may never write another story.”

But what is most revealing to me is the letter Max cites written by Don DeLillo to Lish when Lish begins to toy with the idea of taking public ownership of his contributions:

The fact is: there is no exposing Carver. . . . Even if people knew, from Carver himself, that you are largely responsible for his best work, they would immediately forget it. It is too much to absorb. Too complicated. Makes reading the guy’s work an ambiguous thing at best. People wouldn’t think less of Carver for having had to lean so heavily on an editor; they’d resent Lish for complicating the reading of the stories…In the meantime, take good care of your archives.

What this observation by DeLillo illuminates is the relationship between Carver’s reputation and the uncomplicated reading experience, the way in which a situated author figure facilitates or primes a mood that allows for the affects that we might “generally” concede to the form itself, but is actually more complex. Minimalism, as this awkward editor-author relationship amplifies, makes the beatification of shame into a teachable, imitable craft that would be taken up by many aspiring writers in the recent historical past and present.[1]  Carver, as avatar of Hemingway, enabled a “literary school” that would be one of the major bellwethers for what Mark McGurl calls “The Program era.”

McGurl’s The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing has been one of the most influential contributions to my thinking on contemporary fiction. His chapter “The Hidden Injuries of Craft: Mass Higher Education and Lower-Middle-Class Modernism” offers a unique take on the minimalism/maximalism binary (as emblematized by Carver/Joyce Carol Oates). Lower-Middle-Class Modernism is one in a tripartite schema of postwar fiction, along with technomodernism (the “postmodern” genre that focuses on communication of information) and high cultural pluralism (or something more analogous to  multiculturalism). Lower-middle-class modernism “is preoccupied more than anything else with economic and other forms of insecurity and cultural anomie.”

McGurl, through an emphasis on the forms homologous relationship to the creative writing program, positions this binary of minimalism and maximalism at the nexus of a dialectic between shame and pride of whiteness itself: whereas Oates saw whiteness as integrally tied to shame and therefore a loss of the socio-historical self (as evidenced by her letter to Toni Morrison congratulating her on the Pulitzer Prize in 1988), Carver saw whiteness as the metaphorically desirable “status” to achieve for the lower-middle-class worker. The shame/pride dialectic functions analogously with the rise of higher education because of its application to creative-writing classroom itself (fiction pieces being critiqued by peers and instructors [shame] before they reach the level of publication [pride]). This is a simplification, of course, as the dialectic is interrelated and the manifestation of one emotion (pride) is accompanied by, and contributes to the production of, the other (shame).

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Fredric Jameson has an interesting riff on this tripartite schema:

For it is the fate of any third term to linger precariously on the margins, disabused of any ambition to become the synthesis between the two already in place, and thus condemned to struggle to displace one or other of its opposite numbers to find its own proper place in the binary system. What McGurl has called ‘lower-middle-class modernism’ is always on the edge of proletarianisation, slipping back down into mass culture and the genres still available as Literature to the nobler modes of technomodernism and high cultural pluralism in the form of pastiche.

The lower-middle-class mode cannot hope for that distinction, and so in it the two great tendencies of minimalism and maximalism fight it out to exhaustion, the former producing Carver, the latter Oates. Of the two, it may be said that minimalism carries the palm by way of a genuine high-literary invention – the rebirth of that quintessential writing-program form, the short story.

Jameson’s quibble over this third-part as not exactly a proper Hegelian synthesis between technomodernism and high cultural pluralism seems more adjacent  than disruptive to McGurl’s payoff in this chapter:

Minimalism is valuable to us in its very ‘colorlessness.’ Unredeemed by proud communal attachments except to the occupational category of ‘writer,’ it lays bare itself. It reveals the dependence of postwar American writing on the university, first and foremost, but it also lays bare the general condition of subjection of the majority of the postwar U.S. labor force, white and nonwhite, which owes its mobility, such as it is, to a system of mass higher education built to the specifications of the market. Whatever its disadvantages, political, aesthetic, or otherwise, the beauty of literary minimalism is in its artful unwillingness to conceal the concealment of its own dependency and weakness, which infuses it with an exquisitely shameful reflexivity. As an ‘embarassingly’ programmatic product of the program and unable, for all of its skills at understatement, to hide the fact from anyone very well, minimalism has the ironic advantage of revealing the systemicity of creativity in the Program Era in its starkest form. In doing so, it lays bare the recruitment of that creativity to the inhuman ends of the economic order we serve. (320)

McGurl does not weigh the negatives against the positives of the creative writing program, but instead unveils the ways it is dialectically symptomatic of the postwar literary marketplace. What McGurl (and Max’s account of Gordon Lish) show is that minimalism is anything but simple sentences and concealed emotions. More on The Program Era to come.


[1] As David Foster Wallace points out, this imitability produces some of the most mundane and debilitating fiction, but it is not limited to minimalism as a form itself: “After the pioneers always come the crank-turners, the little gray people who take the machines others have built and just turn the crank, and little pellets of metafiction come out the other end. The crank-turners capitalize for awhile on sheer fashion.”

On American Psycho

I knew that sitting down to finally read American Psycho would carry with it some moods that I brought to the table about the book, the author, and (am-I-a-fourteen-year-old-girl-like) literary feuds. These carefully considered tweets in 2012 were quite endearing:

More can be found here. But, more to my mood, I had in the back of my mind the following back-and-forth between David Foster Wallace and Larry McCaffrey:

LM:How would you contrast your efforts in this regard versus those involved in most television or most popular fiction?

DFW:This might be one way to start talking about differences between the early postmodern writers of the fifties and sixties and their contemporary descendants. When you read that quotation from “Westward” just now, it sounded to me like a covert digest of my biggest weaknesses as a writer. One is that I have a grossly sentimental affection for gags, for stuff that’s nothing but funny, and which I sometimes stick in for no other reason than funniness. Another’s that I have a problem sometimes with concision, communicating only what needs to be said in a brisk efficient way that doesn’t call attention to itself. It’d be pathetic for me to blame the exterior for my own deficiencies, but it still seems to me that both of these problems are traceable to this schizogenic experience I had growing up, being bookish and reading a lot, on the one hand, watching grotesque amounts of TV, on the other. Because I liked to read, I probably didn’t watch quite as much TV as my friends, but I still got my daily megadose, believe me. And I think it’s impossible to spend that many slack-jawed, spittle-chinned, formative hours in front of commercial art without internalizing the idea that one of the main goals of art is simply to “entertain,” give people sheer pleasure. Except to what end, this pleasure-giving? Because, of course, TV’s “real” agenda is to be “liked,” because if you like what you’re seeing, you’ll stay tuned. TV is completely unabashed about this; it’s its sole raison. And sometimes when I look at my own stuff I feel like I absorbed too much of this raison. I’ll catch myself thinking up gags or trying formal stunt-pilotry and see that none of this stuff is really in the service of the story itself; it’s serving the rather darker purpose of communicating to the reader “Hey! Look at me! Have a look at what a good writer I am! Like me!”

Now, to an extent there’s no way to escape this altogether, because an author needs to demonstrate some sort of skill or merit so that the reader will trust her. There’s some weird, delicate, I-trust-you-not-to fuck-up-on-me relationship between the reader and writer, and both have to sustain it. But there’s an unignorable line between demonstrating skill and charm to gain trust for the story vs. simple showing off. It can become an exercise in trying to get the reader to like and admire you instead of an exercise in creative art. I think TV promulgates the idea that good art is just art which makes people like and depend on the vehicle that brings them the art. This seems like a poisonous lesson for a would-be artist to grow up with. And one consequence is that if the artist is excessively dependent on simply being “liked,” so that her true end isn’t in the work but in a certain audience’s good opinion, she is going to develop a terrific hostility to that audience, simply because she has given all her power away to them. It’s the familiar love-hate syndrome of seduction: “I don’t really care what it is I say, I care only that you like it. But since your good opinion is the sole arbitrator of my success and worth, you have tremendous power over me, and I fear you and hate you for it.” This dynamic isn’t exclusive to art. But I often think I can see it in myself and in other young writers, this desperate desire to please coupled with a kind of hostility to the reader.

LM: In your own case, how does this hostility manifest itself?

DFW: Oh, not always, but sometimes in the form of sentences that are syntactically not incorrect but still a real bitch to read. Or bludgeoning the reader with data. Or devoting a lot of energy to creating expectations and then taking pleasure in disappointing them. You can see this clearly in something like Ellis’s “American Psycho”: it panders shamelessly to the audience’s sadism for a while, but by the end it’s clear that the sadism’s real object is the reader herself.

LM: But at least in the case of “American Psycho” I felt there was something more than just this desire to inflict pain—or that Ellis was being cruel the way you said serious artists need to be willing to be.

DFW: You’re just displaying the sort of cynicism that lets readers be manipulated by bad writing. I think it’s a kind of black cynicism about today’s world that Ellis and certain others depend on for their readership. Look, if the contemporary condition is hopelessly shitty, insipid, materialistic, emotionally retarded, sadomasochistic, and stupid, then I (or any writer) can get away with slapping together stories with characters who are stupid, vapid, emotionally retarded, which is easy, because these sorts of characters require no development. With descriptions that are simply lists of brand-name consumer products. Where stupid people say insipid stuff to each other. If what’s always distinguished bad writing—flat characters, a narrative world that’s cliched and not recognizably human, etc.—is also a description of today’s world, then bad writing becomes an ingenious mimesis of a bad world. If readers simply believe the world is stupid and shallow and mean, then Ellis can write a mean shallow stupid novel that becomes a mordant deadpan commentary on the badness of everything. Look man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it. You can defend “Psycho” as being a sort of performative digest of late-eighties social problems, but it’s no more than that.

Wallace, here, is attempting to make a distinction between his writing and that of Bret Easton Ellis, a distinction that for Wallace is crucial. He sees his role as a writer as one that he must employ responsibly, to care enough about his reader to want to hurt them. The “caring” is the key term here, and one that he does not cede to Ellis; in American Psycho the only one who is a victim is the reader herself. I am quite sympathetic to Wallace’s take on fiction and its importance in contemporary life, and thus I have always taken as axiomatic the sadistic relationship that some texts without the same moral pensiveness of a Wallace or Homes or Franzen, like this one, have with their readers (and therefore ought not be put in the same category). But, I think that Wallace’s critique was particularly sharp towards Ellis because of Ellis’s inversion of the Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (Wallace highly valued the 19th century Russian novels and their moral ferocity). One can easily read American Psycho and see that if Raskolnikov were alive today, he would be a psychopathic mass murderer with no redemption (as opposed to a dyspeptic who killed in a moment of passion and spends 500 pages coming to terms with his actions until an ultimate moment of Christian redemption). And, while I actually don’t think Wallace’s take is too inaccurate, I found American Psycho to be riveting, feeding the proclivity we have to watch over and over a horrifying accident or tragedy or two planes crashing into a World Trade Center. After the first hundred or so pages, you become absolutely certain (even without Wallace’s goading), there is nothing you will be “getting” out of American Psycho. But, I think Wallace is mistaken to discount the text’s “value” as merely a “performative digest of late-eighties social problems.”

There is no doubt that American Psycho is overwhelmingly negative, but key moments arise that make us aware of our complicity in this experience. One such moment arises when Bateman becomes unglued in a police chase and the narrative voice becomes fractured into two “personalities,” becoming third-person:

…there is an idea of Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory, and though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable: I simply am not there. It is hard for me to make sense on any given level. Myself is fabricated, an aberration. I am a non contingent human being. My personality is sketchy and unformed, my heartlessness goes deep and is persistent. My conscience, my pity, my hopes disappeared a long time ago (probably at Harvard) if they ever did exist. There are no more barriers to cross. All I have in common with the uncontrollable and the insane, the vicious and the evil, all the mayhem I have caused and my utter indifference toward it, I have now surpassed. I still, though, hold on to one single bleak truth: no one is safe, nothing is redeemed. Yet I am blameless. Each model of human behavior must be assumed to have some validity. Is evil something you are? Or is it something you do? My pain is constant and sharp and I do not hope for a better world for anyone. In fact I want pain inflicted on others. I want no one to escape. But even after admitting this– and I have, countless times, in just about every act I’ve committed– and coming face-to-face with these truths, there is no catharsis. I gain no deeper knowledge about myself, no new understanding can be extracted from my telling. There has been no reason for me to tell you any of this. This confession has meant nothing… (376-377).

This moment is very complex and highly problematic in the literary-ethico complex that we have as readers of “serious fiction.” We have a return to the image of Raskolnikov, in the moment of confession he experiences a catharsis, giving the text itself an opportunity to moralize for the reader. The character’s catharsis becomes the reader’s as well.  When Ellis invokes the opposite, does this mean that anti-catharsis also becomes the reader’s as well? I’m not so sure. I think that enduring the moments of excitement and the moments of disgust, weighing them against one another, allows the novel to invite conflicting affects. For example, the incessant listing of brands, descriptions of clothing, sex and food  function, in their high concentration, as a means to facilitate antagonism/disidentification towards Bateman, but they ingratiate him to the reader as well because of their sensuous quality. When Wallace states that “the sadism’s real object is the reader herself,” he sees this enjoyment that the reader as taking in the reading as not producing anything for itself. But the negative or the abject in this case I think does produce an affective dissonance; we mostly hate Bateman, want him to get caught, want him to suffer back, but do we want him to experience any catharsis? Are we wishing he would “get better”? The show would end. Do we harbor strong connections with his victims, or await the next one in the series? Do we weigh the homeless against prostitutes against yuppies against the poor puppies. Of course we do. But, none of this is lost on the reader. We can feel ourselves experience heightened sympathies, sensuous arousal, jaded cynicisms, or, worst, nothing at all. If, as Jameson says, post-modernism is defined as a “waning of affects,” doesn’t American Psycho, in its abjectness and negativity, make us aware of it; Or, in its unbalanced affects, doesn’t it offer us a horrifyingly revealing cognitive map of the modern subject? Either way, let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water.

Brief Thoughts on The Pale King

It seems to me that we have two ways of approaching The Pale King. 1.) That this is a book like any other that we happen upon and read 2.) That David Foster Wallace’s suicide left a certain number of us melancholic, unable to break our attachment to the author figure, and so we have this one last chance to connect with the person who made us feel less alone with, most notably, Infinite Jest and A Girl With Curious Hair. I am, here, facing my thoughts with the determination to locate a difference between the two.

David Foster Wallace is different. Such is the thesis of Ed Finn’s “Becoming Yourself: David Foster Wallace and the After Life of Reception.” What Ed Finn discovers by a Bourdieuian examination of Wallace’s Amazon marketplace is that readers, more than any other contemporary readership formation, identify with Wallace himself (i.e., those that buy a book by Wallace tend to buy another book by Wallace, rather than merely another work of contemporary fiction, postmodern fiction, encyclopedic novel, etc.). What this information says to me is that around David Foster Wallace there grew a hoard of readers that bought in to his notions of “what fiction does,” or “what fiction ought to do.” I can safely count myself among these buyers. The most palpable element of this “manifesto for fiction” was that the art novel, the serious novel, gave us a unique opportunity to “feel less alone” by having “an intimate conversation between two consciences” in a way completely unavailable to us through other forms of media and entertainment.

These strong characterizations of serious fiction set Wallace up for criticism of whether or not he was ever able to deliver on his promise. As the story goes (D.T. Max’s biography would seem to support this claim), the anxiety Wallace faced in living up to these promises made to his readers (through these claims in interviews and the success of Infinite Jest) paralyzed his ability to deliver (if such a deliverance is possible). I’m not as interested so much in proving this claim, which seems inevitably unprovable. What I am interested in, however, is the ways in which you can understand readers as being invested in this narrative. The Pale King, as it turns out, seems to be the piece of fiction Wallace was “willing to die for.” Who wouldn’t want to read that?

Yet, what seems to go unnoticed in this rationale is the paradox created by the very existence of this edited, published and bestselling unfinished novel: what we loved was “the intimate conversation between two consciences,” what we committed was a violent eavesdropping that made the contract of serious fiction  (one that sustained and made it viable in a contemporary moment when there is little to no justification for actually reading Infinite Jest, a terribly long, difficult, and time-consuming novel [all ways of putting it mildly]) now null and void. Editor Michael Pietsch, whose great efforts in the development of The Pale King merit recognition side by side with Wallace on the front cover, divulges, “Everyone who worked with David knows well how he resisted letting the world see work that was not refined to his exacting standard. But an unfinished novel is what we have, and how can we not look? David, alas, isn’t here to stop us from reading, or to forgive us for wanting to.” [1]  Yet, it seems to me that “David being here,” being present at least in the sense that we as readers have accepted in signing the said contract of Wallace’s serious fiction. What have we learned about ourselves as readers, through the very existence of The Pale King is that we were more interested in consuming, in taking from the authorial subject, than in the contract that made the authorial subject interesting to so many of us in the first place. In 2008, Wallace passed on. In 2009, a worldwide reading project called “Infinite Summer” saw thousands of people worldwide signing up to read undoubtedly our generation’s most confoundingly difficult, yet popular read. These online-readers devoured, discussed, and engaged with Infinite Jest in a way that called into question where we might project the niche market of art novels in the future. In 2011, this fervor was turned into, not nothing, but something else with the publication of The Pale King and its push for the Pulitzer Prize: a spectacle. Except, this spectacle says so much more about us as readers than it does about the sustainability of serious fiction in an Entertainment 3.0 culture. Or maybe it says we cannot be the readers we need to be in order to have a sustainable national marketplace for serious fiction. What is the difference between the first and second group I started this diatribe classifying? I would tell you, but I’m a man of my

If you made it this far, you are entitled to my seemingly contradictory comments on The Pale King : it is brilliant, stunningly so. I wish more than anything Wallace did not succumb to his illness and could have finished it. We will never have another. And I mean that so sincerely it makes me weep.


[1] Pg. x. Michael Pietsch, “Editor’s Note.” Wallace, David Foster. The Pale King: An Unfinished Novel. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2011. Print.